Friday, February 5, 2021

"Behind Blue Eyes," by Anna Mocikat--Fiction Review

Get ready for a fast-paced cyberpunk sci-fi adventure in today’s review of Anna Mocikat’s “Behind Blue Eyes.” The Angels of Olympias aren’t just perfect. They’re indestructible. 

Anna Mocikat

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

As a fan of the Deus Ex games and the cyberpunk subgenre, this novel has a lot in terms of my usual wheelhouse, and I appreciate it a lot for those qualities. I also enjoy a good romantic subplot in my sci-fi, and it doesn’t disappoint in that regard either.  

This is an odd thing to care about—I realize—but I really liked the verticality of some of the fight scenes. Since I was a kid reading R.A. Salvatore’s sword and sorcery fantasy novels, I’ve always been a fan of well-told fight scenes in books. Some people don’t go in for that sort of thing, but I do, and what I find—to commit to maximum nerdom—is most authors, like Kahn, in “The Wrath of Kahn” neglect the third dimension in their fight scenes. What I mean by this is all the action seems to take place on a flat plane, in two dimensions. Mocikat makes terrific use of up and down in her action scenes, especially when Nephilim utilizes her drone, but my favorite fight has to be the one underwater where Nephilim has to fight another cyborg at a disadvantage because of her heavier frame. 

I like that the arch-villain, the prime antagonist of the story, has motivations, that while not laudable, are understandable. Metatron as a character has a certain level of complexity to him and not a little pinch of hypocrisy, made evident by one of his favorite books, “Animal Farm,” from which he takes precisely the wrong lesson.  

What I don’t love about this book:

So everyone is so very horny nearly all the time. It’s a bit distracting because every scene for me becomes, and when does this scene take a turn into sexy time? A certain amount of this observation has to be moderated because the overemphasis of meaningless sex in Olympias is an intentional story beat. In fact, it’s precisely this beat that makes me feel like this is less a spiritual successor of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and more closely related to “Brave New World.” 

Nephilim is by far my favorite character in this book, but that might be because I’m primed to like protagonists. I especially liked her banter and working relationship with her partner Adriel, but Adriel became conspicuously absent for most of the story’s middle. Instead, we end up getting a lot of a character called Finwick, who is less of a partner to Nephilim, so much as a mascot aspiring at being a sidekick. He’s fine, don’t get me wrong, but it’s like having BBQ potato chips. We’re having chips, which’s good—but we could have been having salt and vinegar chips, which are amazing.  

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

“Behind Blue Eyes” starts off with a bang with the Angels of Olympias—killer cyborgs—descending on a small settlement out beyond the fringe filled with dissidents. Nephilim—one of the angels—and her compatriots make short work of the unmodified humans, dispatching all of the adults. They take the children back to Olympias, though, after Nephilim promises one young girl a better life there within society.

Back in Olympias City I—one of the megacities controlled and owned by the Olympias Conglomerate—Nephilim has a quiet drink with her partner. With their distinctive glowing blue eyes, the Angels typically keep to themselves because ordinary citizens of Olympias are off-put by them. You know, the whole unstoppable killer cyborgs thing, with licenses to kill indiscriminately, creates awkward tension. Even at this early stage in the story, Nephilim has nagging doubts about their cause and is anxious when she is called in for an inspection and a scan of her brain. For a good reason, too, because she fails the test, the price of which is ordinarily death. But she is saved by one of the technicians administering the test because he has a major crush on her. 

At this point, Nephilim’s boss, Metatron, leader of the Angels of Olympias, shows inordinate interest in her and lets her know that he intends to raise her to the rank of Arch Angel soon. Before that can happen, though, Nephilim and her partner, along with several other Angels and Arch Angels, are to be deployed on one of the most critical defensive missions of their lives. The other two mega-corporations that control Earth, competitors to the Olympias Conglomerate, are teaming up to tilt the balance against Olympias and have sent their own cyborgs to battle the Angels. In this first battle, at least, the Angels prevail, but at a sizeable cost, and Nephilim herself is injured by a new weapon in the battle.

After the first gambit with the other two mega-corps forces, Nephilim discovers that due to her injury, she is experiencing an odd glitch. The glitch severs her connection to Olympias’ ever-present computer network, which acts as a useful internet-like tool, and Nineteen Eighty-Four-Esque surveillance network—at least temporarily. She uses these temporary windows to have her friend—the technician who saved her life earlier—modify her to experience freedom from the network at will. Something very illegal, and if caught, they will both likely be executed. The technician is successful in installing the modification, and any time Nephilim uses the mod, she appears to be sleeping to the network.

Nephilim, now free of Olympias’ surveillance—or so she believes—revels in her new freedom. She uses the time to check in on the girl she brought to Olympias, promising her a better life, and discovers she’d been sold to a rather seedy establishment. Nephilim immediately reconciles this to the best of her ability and has her sent to a proper orphanage, but the cracks in Nephilim’s faith in Olympias widen. Her doubts become irreconcilable when she meets and falls in love with a man named Jake, who claims to be a member of the resistance against the corporate-controlled society. Nephilim even decides to join the resistance, offering to take a data stick into Angel headquarters to steal information for the resistance.

Soon after entering headquarters, though, Nephilim is caught, and it’s revealed that there is no resistance. The “rebels” are actually just spies from one of the rival mega-corporations. Jake and his group planned on using her to infect all of the Angels with a trojan virus. That was until Jake realized that he was also in love with Nephilim and switched out the data sticks to save her, and effectively committed treason against his own nation. With the help of Nephilim’s technician friend to escape Angel HQ, she goes on the run with Jake from all three mega-corporations, especially from her own. After a series of epic chases and battles, Nephilim manages to get Jake out of Olympias, revealing at the last minute that she knew all along that she could never go with him. While he escapes, Nephilim engages in a desperate, forlorn hope kind of fight against her former boss Metatron. A fight she loses after he impales her through her human heart.

In the end, we discover that Metatron has had Nephilim revived, rebuilt, and her memory wiped so that she might finally serve him as he wanted—as his dedicated Arch Angel.        


My birds’ eye view of this story is; it is far more like Aldous Huxley’s work—jacked up to a lightning-fast pace—more so than Orwell’s. It isn’t that I didn’t notice the allusions to or sometimes direct references to George Orwell, but that the themes resonate to me far more “Brave New World.” Like this one, that novel underscores a listlessness in an overstimulated society where everyone is “Happy” all the time with a capital “H.” There is a tight focus in both stories that underscore the breakdown of intimate relationships between people not because they aren’t permitted but because everything is allowed and encouraged. Typically this is shown by the prevalence of easily accessed drugs and meaningless sex.

Maybe there is an angle here to discuss more in-depth about how sex is used in this story, but what I’m more interested in noting is the contrast between the style of the dystopian society in this novel compared to what we find in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Meaning and fulfillment break down in this story’s society and “Brave New World” because of extreme liberalism regarding things that meet with traditional barriers in society. The lip service is the society of Olympias wants all of its citizens to be happy all the time—albeit in a hedonistic way and not in more profound ways. These hedonistic distractions are the lever in which the elites control the masses. 

In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Big Brother isn’t concerned with anyone’s happiness. In fact, the government of that story actively wants its citizens to know despair and accept that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that they can do about it to change their situation. Big Brother is all-powerful—god-like—and omnipotent with all citizens. There is a certain amount of that between Metatron and Nephilim, but this is an individual to individual basis. In other points of the story, it’s pointed out that all Angels are subjected to monitoring by a “they” like entity, but it doesn’t so much feature in the story as it is something told us. What I mean by that is, other than with Nephilim, we don’t really see that surveillance state in action too much.      

Parting thoughts:

Transhumanism—the philosophy of modifying the human animal’s physiology and intellect through technology—is something we will have to face in the near future. How near? I’d guess within the next fifty years, the debate will be raging, and it’s going to be scary. Books like this confront this fear and underscore parts of that future debate.

Like with all technology, once it is possible to design the human form and steal the wheel of control from evolution, much like with the opening of Pandora’s box in mythology, there is no going back. The world will have changed—irrevocably. The question of where is the line between human and machine will be an open one, with many, many interpretations.

On top of that, we will likely simultaneously face the existential crisis of what strong AI looks like in an unbounded way. Looking back through our long and storied history of reactions to fundamental change, it isn’t too hard to imagine that violence is a likely end result.

Maybe that is always our inevitable reaction to everything—but perhaps this time can be different. Instead of reaching for hatred, death, and destruction followed slowly—oh so painfully slowly—by understanding and finally acceptance, we can circumnavigate that first part. Instead, I hope we move forward with patience, compassion, and innovation.

That can happen if we want it to, and if we try to make it so, but it won’t so long as we hold to the old hatreds and the new. In all of its forms, hate is so incredibly insidious because it feels so much like wisdom. But it isn’t true. It is a lie. 

If you take nothing else from me, I hope you at least—one day—accept this: hatred isn’t wisdom.

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